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Hidden Leaves

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Original AN: This ficlet also takes elements from the fanfics Embers by Vathara. Namely, the idea that spirits are a little more active in the Avatar world and the Dai Li’s job is to protect the populace from the spirits, though fighting spirits leaves a little bit of ‘spookiness’ in their auras, contributing to their scariness. Also, Agents Bon and Shirong and their backstory. It should be understandable without having read Embers, though if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend you do, just in general.

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Princess Caiyun is weak. Everyone in the palace knows that, visible as the evidence is.

Dai Li agent Bon – thankfully, lest he be scarred and spirit cursed like poor Agent Shirong – was not a yet member of the Dai Li nearly eighteen years ago when the previous King was assassinated, and the queen fell moments later to the malicious spirits that set upon their city for that injustice.

He’s heard stories, though, of that dark night when so many Dai Li lost their lives standing between their beloved city and the evil of the world, with victory only snatched from the jaws of despair by luck and the cunning maneuvers of their soon-to-be-leader Long Feng.  Of the fight to push back and chain some of the darkest spirits known to man. Of how they only just managed to save the new child-king and his position as spiritual connection of the Earth Kingdom. Of how their infant princess – the only other remaining member of the royal family, who could help King Kuei maintain the spiritual balance of their land – almost joined her parents; the mere presence of malicious spirits nearly suffocating her in her crib.

Luck and skill saved the poor child, though the experience left her with a more delicate constitution than most. Though she excels at her studies in the feminine graces as she grows, Princess Caiyun’s strength does not grow with age. She cannot abide the heavy cloths and large ornamentations that are traditional for her station, so her servants bedeck her in relatively simple, elegant styles that sweep through court. She is prone to fainting in stressful or strenuous situations, so she given command of the women formerly in the Joo Dee program to lighten her load. And of course, there is the infamous foot-binding incident, confirming the Princess’ low tolerance for pain.

Princess Caiyun is weak, and the Dai Li usually need and respect strength. Somehow, though, she holds the proper respect and reverence due her from the Long Feng’s men. If anything, most Dai Li agents have something of a soft spot for their delicate young princess – though there’s little to indulge her in other than their own opinions and protection. No other noble would bother with even the small nods of recognition Princess Caiyun does, when possible. No other person can interact with them without flinching, at least a little, at their uniforms or their spiritually tainted auras. It’s not much, but for the gratitude-starved Dai Li, it means so much. Of course, most people love her anyways, sweet, gentle soul that she is. Many Agents vow extra measures of defense to preserve their weak little light.

Given this extra protectiveness, Princess Caiyun’s request for a permanent post for a lowly guard initially raises many concerned eyebrows within the Dai Li. Their delicate charge is even more sheltered than her royal brother. How easy would it be for the wrong guard to play on her sympathies and take advantage? But then her reasoning disseminates through the rumor mill and everyone breathes a little easier; every agent who’s been near him can attest to the guard in question’s spiritual presence. If his presence helps quell the small malice spirits that have long target her highness, who are they to protest?

When she appears to make her first friend in the spiritually sensitive Lady Jin-Hua Ma, the same excuses apply. The Lady is well bread enough to make court with the Princess, spiritually powerful enough to explain their quick connection, and unsubtle enough that any attempts at scheming on her part could easily be countered by the Dai Li. Long Feng isn’t especially thrilled, but he hardly ever is when things deviate even slightly from his own plans, so the Dai Li don’t worry too much about it. It’s nice to see their dear Princess smile so genuinely for once.

Agent Bon is not alone among Dai Li who understand the new watch Long Feng puts on the little refugee boy that has wormed his way into Princess Caiyun’s tender heart, thought not his rage of the situation.  Sure, it’s not truly proper, but so much about how their King and his sister have been raised is untraditional. The young, spiritually sensitive boy brings out her maternal instincts. What’s wrong with that? The boy is not a bender, he’s constantly checked for weapons, and is never left unattended with their liege. There’s no way he could harm Princess Caiyun – Agent Bon knows no Dai Li agent would ever allow her to be harmed. He’s made no move to speak of inappropriate things with the princess either. Long Feng’s threats and the new watch on the boy and his family have ensured that.

By the time the Avatar and his unusual companions arrive in Ba Sing Se – much to her highness’ strange delight – Princess Caiyun is still demure and weak, though less lonely than before. Bon watches in the days that follow as his life crashes down around him – first at the revelation of his dear leader’s deception, then as many of his fellows fall under the Fire Princess’ spell and commit their own betrayals.

During the coup, when the Kyoshi warrior-disguised Fire Nation girl starts tossing daggers at the Princess, Agent Bon is abandons his fight against the treasonous agent Fong to help, even though he knows he will be far too late. But then. But then delicate little Princess Caiyun pulls the first blade from her shoulder with barely a pause and blocks the next two.

“Get Kuei out of here!” She cries, as her guard friend steps in to join her – brave man that he is, a mere soldier up against Dai Li and Imperial Fire agents. Together, the two make quite a showing as they dodge and block innumerable attacks, even managing to pull off some of their own, when the guard bring shis spear to bear and Caiyun makes clever use of sharp hair decorations as throwing darts. One Dai Li gets a lucky shot of, grabbing the tail end of Caiyun’s now-loose braid. The Princess stumbles as her hair pulls her painfully to an agent ready for a hostage that never comes. Without missing any more than that first step, Caiyun reaches back to slice off the end of her beautiful braid and brings her blade back around ward off an encroaching weapons’ mistress in one smooth motion.

Agent Bon notices all this through his own fights. He is hard pressed; unsure of who to trust and how to respond to his Princess’s transformation. He manages to see, as he ducks away from where the Lady Jin-Hua is somehow going toe-to-toe with the chi-blocking acrobat, the Fire Princess’ attempt to throw lightning at his King. Kuei is saved only because Caiyun throws away her one real weapon to knock the girl’s fingers astray. Still, he hesitates to save his King first, because the Fire Princess has locked a murderous gaze on the girl who thwarted her. Bon is closer to the king, but Caiyun is more in the thick of things. He doesn’t know who to save first. He hesitates.

“Get Kuei out NOW!” Caiyun cries, and Agent Bon’s dilemma is solved for him.

“So the porcelain doll isn’t quite so useless after all,” Sozin’s heir sneers.

“Beauty perseveres

and finds victory despite

her adversity.*” Princess Caiyun taunts right back, in the same elegant haiku Bon has heard her practice for years.

 

She has the Fire Princess’s full attention, now, making it easy for Bon to reach his highness inhibited. With great effort, Bon throws an arm around his struggling King and flips the floor beneath them. Hopefully, the other still-loyal Dai Li will grab princess Caiyun and follow, because Bon has made his choice and he can not leave his King, the spiritual center holding the Earth Kingdom together, throne or no, alone for the traitors to pick off.

 

Bon pulls said distraught king down through several more layers of floor, finally hitting the tunnels below Ba Sing Se where Bon prays Agent Shirong and his mysterious allies will be waiting to help them.

 

“Let go of me! Go back! Caiyun! You have to go get Caiyun!”

“I’m sorry, Your Majesty. I can’t,” Agent Bon gasps out to a grieving young man. The pain and apology in his words are real.

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*A reference to Ino’s flower message during the Kunoichis sleepover (“Natural Beauty is the warrior who perseveres and finds victory despite adversity.”), shortened to fit into a Haiku, which fanon has is the elegant way for an Earth Kingdom lady to communicate. Shikako always throws so much shade.